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Suddenly, it seems like 2016 all over again with Chicago violence

The strides our city made over the past three years in slowing violence have been wiped out in the past month. What can we do to get back on track?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot looks on as Chicago Police Supt. David Brown announces the city’s new Use of Force Working Group earlier this month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

We fear history is repeating itself.

In 2016, Chicago tallied nearly 800 homicides after a wave of righteous, but peaceful, outrage gripped the city after the release of the video showing a since-imprisoned white police officer shooting Black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. Police work slowed — arrests in 2016 dropped 24 percent from the year before — and the violence grew out of control.

But in the next three years, our city made progress: Police reported 670 homicides in 2017, 579 in 2018 and 491 last year. At the end of 2019, robberies, burglaries and auto thefts reached their lowest levels in more than 20 years, and the number of shootings hit a four-year low.

“These gains are the result of a data-informed, collaborative strategy with Chicago’s police officers, community-based organizations and street outreach groups who have dedicated their lives to keeping this city and its residents safe,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot wrote on Jan. 1 about the crimefighting strategy Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the police department deployed — and she continued — upon taking office in May 2019.

But suddenly, it seems like 2016 all over again, even taking into account that COVID-19 has radically changed the landscape.

A wave of righteous, though unfortunately not-always-peaceful, outrage over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd has gripped our country and city, again sparking slowdowns in police work here.

During the first 28 days in June — although the number of gun arrests was up 45% — the total number of Chicago police arrests was down 55%, street stops fell by 74% and traffic stops dropped by 86% compared with the same period the year before, according to an analysis by Frank Main and Fran Spielman in Wednesday’s Sun-Times.

Concurrently, and not surprisingly, violent crime here is spiking. A 3-year-old was shot Tuesday in West Englewood in what might have been retaliation for a gang-related shooting that wounded a teenager a half hour before. At last check, the 3-year-old was in critical condition; the teen was doing OK.

Other children have died. This past weekend, 65 people were shot, 18 fatally, including a 1-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 17-year-old. Two weekends ago, 104 people were shot, with 15 killed, including a 3-year-old and four teens. On May 31, 18 people were killed in a single Sunday, the most violent day in 60 years in Chicago.

On Tuesday, John Catanzara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said of his members, “I’m not telling them them not to do police work. But I hope they just slow down and decide ‘Is this necessary’ before they do it.”

On Wednesday, Lightfoot said the slowdown wasn’t a CPD defensive crouch, but instead was the result of a “month of civic uprising” in which police were tied up “making sure that people could safely” express their First Amendment rights to protest Floyd’s death.

Let’s be clear: A police slowdown isn’t the only factor that we see fueling the recent violence. COVID-19 is limiting the way cops can interact with the public, not to mention the pressure the pandemic has put on officials at Cook County Jail to keep inmates safe and the jail population as low as possible. Newly hired Police Supt. David Brown and Lightfoot have been repeatedly saying the Cook County court system is going soft on gun offenders, releasing them back on the streets too soon — a subject we’ll address later on in this editorial.

In an editorial earlier this week, we praised Brown for articulating that policing alone is not the solution for Chicago’s violence, that the issue goes back to longstanding income inequities on the South and West sides that will require a broader, long-term strategy to fix.

But we can’t ignore this short-term reality: When police officers stand down and stay in their cars, criminals take advantage, and people — including children — die.

While we know we’re not smart enough to solve this problem, we’ve been observing the police department long enough to put the following ideas up for discussion:

Acknowledge the police morale problem

Catanzara blames Lightfoot for low morale in the department. The mayor dismisses Catanzara’s comments as a tactic in police union contract negotiations.

Then there’s this: Brown noted in his news conference Monday that 16 cops have been shot at so far this year, with four being hit. Cops also were routinely pelted with bottles, feces and other debris amid the protests and looting in the wake of Floyd’s death. Hundreds of officers were injured.

Regardless of who or what is to blame, there is little doubt CPD morale is at the same level — or worse — than in 2016. Lightfoot needs to accept there’s a morale problem and work with Brown to fix it, or the slowdown will continue.

Chicago’s police department budget this year totals about $1.7 billion, including competitive salaries and good benefits for officers because taxpayers historically recognize that policing is a tough job.

We understand it’s even tougher to be a police officer right now. But would we tolerate slowdowns from firefighters, sanitation workers or other public servants?

Stop protecting bad cops

We’ve written before that Chicago’s FOP contract and police contracts across the country provide too many roadblocks for disciplining rogue cops, eroding the public’s trust. It’s time that union leaders in Chicago work with Lightfoot’s administration to get this right in exchange for a fair contract, which the cops have been working without since 2017.

Police are constantly pleading for the public’s help in helping solve crimes. Absent contractual reforms, the trust gap only gets bigger.

Get policy makers on the same page

We also need everyone from the police to elected officials to get on the same page. Brown and Lightfoot are at odds with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Chief Judge Timothy Evans over whether too many people accused of dangerous crimes are being put back on the street.

Preckwinkle, Foxx and Evans say they are righting the injustice of people who are awaiting trial and presumed innocent being held in Cook County Jail simply because they can’t afford to post bond. But Lightfoot and Brown, just as Brown’s predecessors argued, say people released before trial are committing too many crimes. The data on both sides seems squishy, and the police seem caught in the middle.

The rift was highlighted this week when Foxx confirmed on Tuesday there would be a “presumption of dismissal” for some types of arrests, including aggravated batteries to police officers, if the incidents weren’t caught on police video. That decision, which stunned some former prosecutors, will only widen the distrust between the police and Foxx.

Overtime is needed . . . for now

There’s been a lot of debate about whether to pay cops overtime. For the first time in his eight weeks on the job, we heard Brown talk in solid numbers about deploying additional cops, saying 1,200 extra officers will be deployed over the Fourth of July weekend.

The department’s active-duty headcount is down slightly — from 13,306 officers in June 2019 to 13,062 officers this June, according to a June 9 Freedom of Information Act response to the Sun-Times. More overtime is a necessary evil for now.

A new strategy on gang crimes?

A large chunk of the spike in killings is again being driven by gang members. This creates a conundrum: How can we expect street cops to aggressively question suspected gang members — which is a way they can get information to potentially stop shootings beforehand — without acknowledging that by doing this, they run the risk of harassing law-abiding citizens.

Brown this week noted “the complexity of Chicago’s violence.”

Lightfoot began this year saying a collaborative strategy with Chicago’s police officers, community-based organizations and street outreach groups is a key part of the path forward.

It’s time to confront the complexities involved, set aside the rhetoric and get back on that path.

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